Technology provides great hope and opportunity for farmers everywhere. It hinges on reliable broadband service and cell phone coverage, which can be a problem.
Reprinted by permission of Maine Town & City March 2019, by Janet Pineo
One of the newest inventions has the power to transform one of the oldest ones, once the federal government draws an accurate picture of the status quo.
That’s the thrust of the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018, part of the 2018 Farm Bill enacted in December at the end of the 115th Congress. It marries rapid expansion of rural broadband internet coverage to the rise of precision agriculture technology with a goal of reaching 95 percent of agricultural land in the United States with reliable fixed and mobile broadband capabilities by 2025.
“It’s doable,” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, and most recently the director of ConnectME Authority, which leads the state’s broadband efforts.
“There’s no reason we can’t do it,” she said, adding that the hurdle is financial.
What is precision ag?
Precision agriculture, often shortened to “precision ag,” unites different technologies to grow crops that can be targeted down to the individual plant. It measures fertilizer application, changing the rate depending on soil conditions. It plants perfectly spaced seeds and rows. It irrigates only what needs water. It applies more or less pesticides. It tracks yield with monitors. It harvests the crop.
Precision ag gives farmers the ability to collect data in real time on what’s happening in their fields and respond to it, even remotely.
And it all depends on a reliable broadband connection.
“There’s amazing technology out there,” said Keith LaBrie, vice president and owner of LaBrie Farms LLC in St. Agatha. LaBrie started using precision agriculture technology about six years ago. “I was blown away after the first year of running it. It’s improved our way to compete. We’ve rented and purchased more land.”
LaBrie now manages about 1,100 acres, growing potatoes, oats, barley and clover. Some of the acreage is in St. Agatha, but the rest is in a 20-mile radius around the town and in Fort Kent, Madawaska and Sinclair.
LaBrie has two GPS base stations that provide the necessary coverage for the fields, although he said repositioning those stations six or seven times a year is not unusual. He pays for a GPS-satellite subscription as opposed to having cellphone GPS to run his equipment. A single base station was a $17,000 investment.
The GPS coverage is the heart of the operation. “Most any field work we do is done with GPS technology,” he said. “We lose GPS, we won’t even go.”
LaBrie cites the consistency of the technology as one of the benefits. Before, he said, “it was all done by hand.” There were “tracking” problems with plantings, meaning the planter could drift an inch or two or four, which would throw off all the rows that followed. That, in turn, caused problems later with harvesting.
With the GPS-equipped planter, LaBrie said, “the machine is steering itself. The operators are less fatigued.” Work can be done day or night, thanks to the GPS-guided machinery.
Mobile devices play a major role in summertime irrigation for LaBrie and his neighbor, Brandon Berce, co-owner of Berce Farms in St. Agatha. Cell phones connect to the monitors that are tied into the control center of the center pivot irrigation system.
“It will beep my phone,” Berce said. “This will tell me if something is not going right.”
Taking on water
Berce said they added the irrigation technology last year after using other pieces of precision agriculture for the past seven or eight. It’s provided “kind of just peace of mind” knowing that if there is a problem, such as too much water that could lead to crop loss, the response can be immediate.
Berce Farms grows seed potatoes on about 180 acres, rotating that with about 300 acres of grain. All of the farm is in St. Agatha along Long Lake, with the Berces owning between 60 and 70 percent of their acreage and renting the rest.
Berce, too, has a GPS station and said that he can share the device if another farmer needs it for positioning. Berce Farms uses GPS technology for the planter and tractors, with Berce noting that terrain plays a role. “We’re farming on a mountain,” Berce said. That grade means some pieces of equipment need to have independent steering to work accurately with the GPS technology.
Last year, however, something changed for Berce: cell phone coverage.
“It’s gotten worse,” he said. “I lose connection out in the field often.”
He has talked with the provider and doesn’t have any solid answers as to why coverage that used to be reliable suddenly isn’t. He pointed to the irrigation technology as crucial to having a reliable connection, but also said that having his mobile device lets him stay on the farm and connect remotely, even to out-of-town meetings and webinars. Just a trip to local meetings in Presque Isle is an hour or so away, Berce said.
State of Maine broadband
It’s true to say that no one is certain how much of Maine remains without broadband.
Part of this issue is in how broadband coverage is reported by customers and part of it is in proprietary information from providers. Then there are the census blocks.
A census block is the smallest geographic unit used by the U.S. Census Bureau. In Maine, one census block could be an entire town. St. Agatha, for example, had three census blocks in the 2010 Census.
Why is this an issue with broadband? If even one customer in a census block has broadband coverage, which is defined as a 25 megabits per second download and a three mbps upload, then it is reported that the entire census block has broadband coverage.
“It’s why there’s not a clear map,” Commissioner Johnson said. She estimates that 55,000 Maine households are not connected, and most are rural. “There are some pockets in urban markets,” Johnson said.
An example of pockets would be Presque Isle, with its population of about 9,500. The 75.2-square-mile city in central Aroostook County is home to a medical center, the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Northern Maine Community College. There’s a regional airport and a city-owned industrial park.
But go a mile from downtown Presque Isle, said City Manager Martin Puckett, and there’s a good chance there is no broadband coverage. “There are gaps,” he said.
Last year, Puckett saw the coverage map for the city while working on updating the cable agreement with Spectrum.
“There are large blocks a mile from downtown with no service,” he said. Some may have dial-up speeds or nothing at all. He pointed to the city’s Public Works garage, which falls into one of the underserved areas. Employees have been known to start the download of a document before leaving for the night, Puckett said, “and hope they have it open when they get there the next morning.”
For fixed broadband in Presque Isle, Puckett said, the requirement is that there need to be 15 houses per mile of road for the cable company to install cable. In rural, agricultural areas, that can pose a hurdle, and Presque Isle has its share of agriculture: The city is about 25 percent agricultural land, according to the city assessor, with 11,725 acres of tillable land out of 47,377 acres assessed.
The Precision Agriculture Act calls for the Federal Communications Commission to establish within a year a task force to review the needs of precision ag. Its duties include identifying and measuring gaps in broadband access on agricultural land, developing policy recommendations to meet the 95 percent coverage goal by 2025, and recommending specific steps the FCC should take to obtain reliable measurements of broadband availability to target funding support. Within 180 days of the act’s ratification, the FCC and Department of Agriculture have to submit to the task force a list of all federal programs and resources available for the expansion of broadband access on unserved agricultural land.
“I think it will have a huge impact on Maine, but it’s going to happen slowly,” said Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, when asked about the effect of the act.
“We’re kind of, sort of, usually the last to get it,” she said, alluding to the way Maine often lags behind the rest of the country with different trends. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she added, because the delay means Mainers get better service because the problems have been corrected by the time it arrives.
What Smith sees coming from this act is the establishment of reliable broadband connectivity. That, in turn, will spotlight the need to fun programs to help farmers purchase the technology and equipment that can use broadband to increase productivity and lower costs.
Precision agriculture is “an expensive endeavor” for farmers, she said, with expenses that include internet connections, software, equipment in the office and out in the field, maintenance and training. Maine’s largest farms pale in comparison to the size of many farms elsewhere in the country, she said.
“We are not at the scale where farmers can afford to pay out of pocket directly,” Smith said.
Building the case
Commissioner Johnson said the strides toward better connectivity start locally, particularly with regional internet providers. Many farmers in the County, she said, are better connected because a regional provider “understands what they need.” The Precision Agriculture Act and other broadband bills in 2018, including the USDA ReConnect program, would target funds toward companies that would build the infrastructure.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, a co-sponsor of the Precision Agriculture Act, was among the leads on the Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Act, which passed in December. This legislation aims to build evidence to show how the deployment and adoption of broadband promotes economic development. When that data is available, it will be another tool to use in directing resources for broadband.
“In the 21st Century economy, there is no substitute for a high-speed broadband connection,” King said. “Whether it’s a small business trying to reach its global customers, a farm working to improve efficiency, or a student completing a homework assignment, internet access is a vital tool that fuels economic growth and educational opportunity. That’s why I’ve made the expansion of rural broadband and closing the digital divide one of my top issues in the Senate, and why I released my Rural Broadband Roadmap to identify opportunities to advance this priority.”
King’s road map, released in 2017, listed four steps as key: modernizing federal programs that support broadband, making broadband a priority in federal infrastructure investment; removing obstacles and reducing costs to broadband deployment; and improving digital equity and closing the rural divide.
“We have made important strides in each of the four points I emphasized but there is more work to do,” King said, “and I’ll keep pushing to make sure that every American has equal access to the economic, educational, and social opportunities that come with a high-speed broadband connection.” ν
MMA BROADBAND LEGISLATION
In recent years, the Maine Municipal Association’s Legislative Policy Committee proposed $10 million bonds for increased state support of reliable, affordable, high-speed internet infrastructure. While the LPC continues to back an increase in state resources, this year in Augusta it is advancing two targeted policy proposals in an effort to facilitate broadband expansion.
An Act To Re-Establish Municipal Access To Facilities Located In Municipal Rights of Way. This proposal seeks to restore municipalities’ right to attach municipal facilities to utility poles located in the municipal right of way, without having to pay utilities to move their facilities out of the space on the poles that has traditionally been reserved for municipal uses. By exempting municipalities from having to pay utility companies’ “make-ready” fees, this bill will remove one of the largest roadblocks to local broadband efforts.
An Act To Recognize The Public Necessity of Broadband Infrastructure. This legislation would add “community broadband systems” to the list of essential types of infrastructure that municipalities may construct and generate revenue from for reasons of public necessity. The bill would reserve the provision of retail internet services for private sector providers to underscore the aim of enhancing public-private partnerships.